There are certain places in world sport that leading up to a major event hum with palpable anticipation, expectation and excitement like few others. The atmosphere is cauldron like – everything else going on becomes secondary to the occasion, as the collective buzz sweeps the population whose optimistic hopes are pinned on a small number of highly skilled athletes. On a Friday evening with the magnificently lit Millennium Stadium as a centrepiece, Cardiff is one of those special places as the 2015 Six Nations curtain ascends tonight. Whilst it promises to be an enthralling spectacle, the question my first post of the New Year poses – how have these players got to this point? What have they done throughout their careers to be deemed worthy of representing their country on the biggest stage?
The Christmas period presented a much welcomed opportunity for some rest and recovery from a manic autumn term, during which I read a classic Sir Ken Robinson book on learning to be creative. In his opening prologue Robinson talks about the issue of academic inflation; how a university degree used to guarantee one of a foothold into the varying professional industries. As we are well aware that is no longer the case, with more people than ever before completing academic qualifications to the point where a Master’s degree or even a PhD is no longer an assured currency of success.
What about sporting inflation though? There used to be a time when one’s place in the side would be guaranteed on your ability alone, much like the university degree analogy. Not anymore. With modern day sports science fitness levels, nutrition, lifestyle, health longevity and psychology are just some of the requirements an elite athlete needs to even be considered for selection. More and more sportspeople have to meet these requirements which they are, but then what happens? How does one stand out from the crowd to qualify as one of those few sportspeople to play in front of millions?
The answer is rather simple – they are better at their profession than anybody else. Easy enough statement to get your head around, but what does better mean? What does it look like? When asking a player what they want to work on in practice, how many times has the answer been something they regard as a weakness or area for development? In my experience far too often! Though it is of course important to improve weak aspects of your game, I was struck by a talk I remember from Sir Ian McGeechan a few years ago. He spoke about the importance of developing world class strengths. It didn’t matter if all aspects of your game weren’t up to international level; as long as your specialist skills and attributes were world class.
Take Jason Robinson for example, one of English rugby’s most prolific wingers in recent history. One of the team’s best tacklers? No. Best kickers? No. We all remember him for those mazy runs and flashy feet that effortlessly danced their way through many a defence. Australia’s opposite number at the time Lote Tuquiri remembers all too well: “Jason Robinson is probably England’s only world-class back. There’s probably no one in the game with better footwork.” Forget his height and some of the other areas to his game, this was a guy who had made a strength of his better than anybody else in the world, let alone his own team. Just like David Beckham was renowned for being the world’s best set piece taker, or Chris Gayle for his six hitting capabilities these strengths underpin and define these players. They are what make them selectable in the eyes of panels, boards and organisation that crave outcomes in today’s results driven business. There is an understanding and acceptance that they will not come off every time, but even 40% of the time might go some way to securing victory on those occasions.
Another point Sir Ken makes in his book with regards to university degrees is that whilst you may have one, is it an accurate representation of your intelligence? You could pass an exam for example, but months down the line can recall next to nothing about the topic – essentially your learning is artificial. The same could be said of sport – you could possess considerable ability, but your game awareness and intelligence could be lacking.
Too often there is a common misconception that ability equates to you being a good player. So if intelligence is your underlying strength, make it world class like the great Roger Federer has. For all his success, Federer never possessed the power of a Sampras, the speed of a Nadal or the fitness of a Djokovic. What he did have though, was intelligence in abundance made up of anticipation and his general game awareness. What he lacked in acceleration he made up for by being able to move earlier and react faster.
When you’re evaluating your all round game, ask yourself – what makes me selectable? Why would I pick me? If you have an answer to that, go and take that strength and make it the absolute strongest it can be. Because I can almost guarantee you, those guys walking out to that cauldron like atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium later were picked because their strengths had the potential to win.